This is my modern English translation of Paul Valéry's poem “Le cimetière marin” (“The graveyard by the sea”). Valéry was buried in the seaside cemetery evoked in his best-known poem. From the vantage of the cemetery, the tombs seemed to “support” a sea-ceiling dotted with white sails. Valéry begins and ends his poem with this image ...
Excerpts from “Le cimetière marin” (“The graveyard by the sea”)
from Charmes ou poèmes (1922)
by Paul Valéry
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
Do not, O my soul, aspire to immortal life, but exhaust what is possible.
—Pindar, Pythian Ode 3
This tranquil ceiling, where white doves are sailing,
stands propped between tall pines and foundational tombs,
as the noonday sun composes, with its flames,
sea-waves forever forming and reforming ...
O, what a boon, when some lapsed thought expires,
to reflect on the placid face of Eternity!
As a pear dissolves in the act of being eaten,
transformed, through sudden absence, to delight
relinquishing its shape within our mouths,
even so, I breathe in vapors I’ll become,
as the sea rejoices and its shores enlarge,
fed by lost souls devoured; more are rumored.
Beautiful sky, my true-blue sky, ’tis I
who alters! Pride and indolence possessed me,
yet, somehow, I possessed real potency ...
But now I yield to your ephemeral vapors
as my shadow steals through stations of the dead;
its delicate silhouette crook-*******, “Forward!”
... My soul still awaits reports of its nothingness ...
... What corpse compels me forward, to no end?
What empty skull commends these strange bone-heaps?
A star broods over everything I lost ...
... Here where so much antique marble
shudders over so many shadows,
the faithful sea slumbers ...
... Watchful dog ...
Keep far from these peaceful tombs
the prudent doves, all impossible dreams,
the angels’ curious eyes ...
... The brittle insect scratches out existence ...
... Life is enlarged by its lust for absence ...
... The bitterness of death is sweet and the mind clarified.
... The dead do well here, secured here in this earth ...
... I am what mutates secretly in you ...
I alone can express your apprehensions!
My penitence, my doubts, my limitations,
are fatal flaws in your exquisite diamond ...
But here in their marble-encumbered infinite night
a formless people sleeping at the roots of trees
have slowly adopted your cause ...
... Where, now, are the kindly words of the loving dead? ...
... Now grubs consume, where tears were once composed ...
... Everything dies, returns to earth, gets recycled ...
And what of you, great Soul, do you still dream
there’s something truer than these deceitful colors:
each flash of golden surf on eyes of flesh?
Will you still sing, when you’re as light as air?
Everything perishes and has no presence!
I am not immune; Divine Impatience dies!
Emaciate consolation, Immortality,
grotesquely clothed in your black and gold habit,
transfiguring death into some Madonna’s breast,
your pious ruse and cultivated lie:
who does not know and who does not reject
your empty skull and pandemonic laughter?
The wind is rising! ... We must yet strive to live!
The immense sky opens and closes my book!
Waves surge through shell-shocked rocks, reeking spray!
O, fly, fly away, my sun-bedazzled pages!
Break, breakers! Break joyfully as you threaten to shatter
this tranquil ceiling where white doves are sailing!
“Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre!
L'air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!
Envolez-vous, pages tout éblouies!
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d'eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs!”
Keywords/Tags: Paul Valery, French poem, English translation, sea, seaside, cemetery, grave, graves, graveyard, death, sail, sails, doves, ceiling, soul, souls